Applied Design Thinking – A great school and company case study

Check out the design thinking going on at Generation Schools (thank you to my friend @mixedmethods4 for sending this my way). Generation Schools have both developed a specific organizational design and have articulated an approach to design thinking. Perhaps most impressively, they have been able to navigate district politics in New York and they appear to have brought the district and teachers’ union together in support of some interesting innovations in the design of the school day and of teachers’ work patterns…

The Generation Schools model is focussed on changing the way time and space are used in the school and being purposeful about these changes. These purposes are, in turn, articulated relatively clearly. For example:

Generation Schools has addressed the organizational impediments that overwhelm many potentially good teachers, especially in high-need schools, so that they can provide well-prepared, engaging and effective instruction to every student every day — and so that they can build a successful career. Our goal is for good teachers to become great and for great teachers to become deeply satisfied in their profession.

Some of the purposes for this design appear to be: 1) increase teacher effectiveness; 2) improve the career of the teacher; 3) organize so that teaching time is maximized for both teachers and students; 4) implied in all of this is an increase in student learning. Purpose four is inserted by logical syllogism earlier on the page, “Evidence demonstrates that when good teachers have more time with much smaller classes, students achieve.”

The designers have selected a set of design principles through a process of research and investigation which they describe on the site. They accomplish these purposes through a set of structural changes to the organization of time and space within the school. These include increased professional collaboration and non-teaching planning time for teachers and decreased numbers of students taught by each teacher. As they describe the model therefore…

  • Expands learning time by up to 30% for all students without increasing the teacher work year.
  • Reduces class size in core Foundation Courses to an average of 14 to 1.
  • Reduces the total teacher load by two-thirds.
  • Increases professional development and provides common planning time daily for all teachers.
  • Enhances the capacity of teachers to collect, analyze and respond continuously to data.
  • Leverages current and emerging instructional technologies in the classroom.

This list represents evident design–there is clear structure adopted to purpose (See our post, What is design?) and at least the initial outcome data suggest that the redesign of time and space is effectively allowing teachers to work together, reducing their student-loads, and still giving students more total learning time. In a paper (October, 2009) by Elena Silva from Education Sector, the author describes how the model functions:

The team approach at Generation Schools doesn’t just pool the talents of individuals. It compels collaboration. Terri Grey, principal of Brooklyn Generation, explains that working together is by design, affixed to the daily and yearly schedules. After teaching the two foundation courses in the morning and one studio in the afternoon, teachers have the remainder of the day—two hours each day—for common planning and preparation. (See Figure 1.) And twice a year, while their students are engaged in the intensive courses, teachers get a full week to work with grade-based teams developing and planning curriculum and assessment across subjects and observing colleagues at their school and other schools throughout the city. “It’s the structure that makes the difference,” Grey says, comparing this to her experience in other schools.17 “All the pieces were there at my last school, but here they are all put together and the structures drive the teachers.”

Silva goes on to contend that innovative “designs for teachers’ work” (p. 13) such as these are represent a potential reworking of the professional lives and career paths of teachers. If such reforms can endure in schools over time, I completely agree that the teacher experience might be profoundly different.

I do wish that authors like Silva and organizations such as Generation Schools would continue to broaden their understanding of school design as a concept. The design of teachers’ work is only one of the important elements of schooling and when we discuss school design, I think it is essential that we focus on purposes that drive and integrate all elements of schooling.

Generation Schools is an excellent example of innovative thinking and structural design. I would like very much to learn more about how design thinking impacts the elements of schooling at Generation Schools. Elements of schooling might include, for example, interactions with families and communities, school culture, social and emotional support for students, and the development of curriculum and assessment (not just when collaborative planning happens, but what the goals of planning are and how curricular choices are made).

In part 2 of my weekly Friday series on the purposes of schooling, I will be laying out a framework for conceptualizing the impact of purposes on the elements of schooling. It is my hope that this framework and the upcoming posts in the series will support and further the kind of design thinking that is beginning to be employed at places like Generation Schools.


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